I finished Perfume: The Story of a Murderer on audio on Saturday. It’s very… original. I enjoyed it, but there some parts that didn’t quite work for me.
What it’s about:
From the Goodreads blurb:
In the slums of eighteenth-century France, the infant Jean-Baptiste Grenouille is born with one sublime gift—an absolute sense of smell. As a boy, he lives to decipher the odors of Paris, and apprentices himself to a prominent perfumer who teaches him the ancient art of mixing precious oils and herbs. But Grenouille’s genius is such that he is not satisfied to stop there, and he becomes obsessed with capturing the smells of objects such as brass doorknobs and fresh-cut wood. Then one day he catches a hint of a scent that will drive him on an ever-more-terrifying quest to create the “ultimate perfume”—the scent of a beautiful young virgin…a terrifying examination of what happens when one man’s indulgence in his greatest passion—his sense of smell—leads to murder.
Perfume grabbed my attention from the beginning with the story of Grenouille’s sad birth and tragic childhood. It’s almost enough to make the reader feel bad for the guy, until you realize that even as an infant and small child, Grenouille wasn’t experiencing life and other people like most humans do. The book is very well-written and a fast read, with plenty going on to keep me interested. I thought the descriptions of 18th century Paris were incredible and the way Suskind deals with scents and the sense of smell in the novel are extraordinary. There were times I felt like I could almost smell what was being described, which was fun except when it was something gross.
For me, the book was at it’s best when things took a turn in the direction of horror: the chapters with the creeping and the killing built up slowly and steadily to the point that I had goosebumps once or twice. There’s something so deliciously fun about a scary-good serial killer story.
The audiobook version narrated by Nigel Patterson is very well done and I enjoyed listening to it a lot more than I enjoyed looking at the audiobook artwork:
While the book isn’t exactly believable (is any human’s sense of smell THAT good?), it read more like historical fiction with a bit of the macabre mixed in than fantasy. That is, right up until it took a turn near the end into way-out-there territory. I didn’t dislike the ending, but gosh it was weird.
Apparently there was a movie made from the book back in 2006 that has decent reviews AND has Alan Rickman. You were no doubt aware of this, but I seem to live under a rock. If you’ve seen it, please comment and tell me what you think – I may just have to rent it and see for myself.
This book is a lot: a lot of pages in print, a lot of hours on audio, a lot of disturbing scenes, a entire section containing a whole lot of murdered women and girls, and just a lot to process in general.
I’m participating in a Litsy ‘Read Around the World’ challenge, where each month we read a book set in or written by an author from a specific country chosen for us. In May, Chile was our country, so I thought it would be the perfect time to tackle this chunkster by Chilean author Robert Bolaño. It’s been on my tbr for years, thanks to the 1001 Books to Read Before You Die list. I finished it a few days ago and have been trying to figure out how to review it ever since: this is a very good book, and parts of it were genuinely enjoyable to read, but I’m not sure this is really a book to be read for pleasure. Which I realize as I type is a crazy thing for me to say, since I read only for pleasure and I never once considered bailing on this book. As I said, it’s a lot.
What it’s about:
The Goodreads blurb says this:
Three academics on the trail of a reclusive German author; a New York reporter on his first Mexican assignment; a widowed philosopher; a police detective in love with an elusive older woman—these are among the searchers drawn to the border city of Santa Teresa, where over the course of a decade hundreds of women have disappeared.
All of that is true, but there is so much more to 2666.
The book is divided into five separate parts, each of which could almost be their own book. The parts all have a connection to the fiction Mexican city Santa Teresa, which is apparently based on the real city of Ciudad Juarez. ‘The Part About the Critics’ follows four European literary critics as they search for a mysterious and reclusive German author named Archimboldi and become involved with each other romantically and sexually. Their search leads some of them to Santa Teresa, and we hear how the city is plagued with femicide. ‘The Part About Amilfitano’ is about a philosophy professor from Chile who moves to Santa Teresa with his young adult daughter, Rosa, and how he begins to worry for her safety with all of the murders of women and girls happening. ‘The Part About Fate’ follows a Black American journalist, Oscar Fate, who doesn’t normally cover sports, but is assigned to write about a boxing match in Santa Teresa. While there, Fate is exposed to the seedy side of the city, hears about all of the murders, and wants to investigate them. While there, he meets Amilfitano’s daughter Rosa, and is set to interview Klaus Haas, a German suspect in the murders. ‘The Part About the Crimes’ is a detailed chronicling over one hundred murders of girls and women in Santa Teresa over a five year period, with information about their lives, the police investigating the murders, conspiracies and narcos, and large section about Klaus Haas. ‘The Part About Archimboldi’ takes us way back to the origins of the mysterious author and links to Santa Teresa in an unexpected way.
I told you it was a lot.
This is the first book by Roberto Bolaño that I have read, and it was the last book that he wrote. The book was published posthumously, and Bolaño himself said before his death that the book was unfinished or needed revision, so I had to wonder as I read, and especially when I finished, if book would have been different if he had more time with it. Even so, the writing is astoundingly good: descriptive even in it’s starkness, complex yet flowing.
Each part really does read like it’s own book. I enjoyed the first part and was feeling very invested in the dreamlike story of the critics when it abruptly ended. The second part was less engaging for me, but it also seemed much shorter than the other parts. Oscar Fate is my favorite character in the book, and I loved his part until it, again, ended abruptly leaving me wanting more. The part about the crimes was emotionally exhausting for me. It reads like a true crime novel, with one murdered woman or girl after another, their lives, and the efforts made (or not made) to solve their murders. It’s interesting and important to the story, but knowing that it’s based on real stories and real life is heartbreaking. Then it’s over, and the part about Archimboldi takes us on a historical jaunt through Europe in WWII up to the more modern time of the book, and the brings Archimboldi to Santa Teresa as well.
The descriptions in this book are not flowery at all. There is sex, murder, and bad people. There is a whole lot of murdering of women and girls, and yet I was surprised to find that Bolaño’s treatment of women is not in the least objectifying. I sometimes struggle with the way men write about women in their books, but I did not have that problem with 2666. The female characters are their own independent people as much as the males, and even the crimes section with all of those murders seems written to give us the stark details of what economic disadvantages, misogyny, and disregard for the lives of women and girls has resulted in without romanticizing it in the least. I’m not an expert on Bolaño and his views on feminism at all, but that’s what I got from this book and, as a reader, I appreciated it.
The mystery of the book is intriguing. We don’t really end up with an answer about who was responsible for all of the murders, and I’m not sure we are supposed to, but that makes sense considering the subject matter and real life. There isn’t always a Sherlock Holmes or Poirot to solve the crimes and close the cases neatly, and people suffer. Politics and crime often go hand in hand, and people suffer. One of the quotes from this book that I keep going back to—I wouldn’t say it sums up the book, because there is no way to sum this book up in one line—gives a bit of insight into the general feeling of this novel for me:
“History, which is a simple whore, has no decisive moments but is a proliferation of instants, brief interludes that vie with one another in monstrousness.”
I listened to the audiobook for the majority of 2666, and the narrators were all excellent. I especially loved G. Valmont Thomas’ reading for the part about Fate and Grover Gardener’s narration of the final part. Scott Brick is one of my favorite narrators – I realize lots of listeners don’t care for his style, but his reading of the part about the crimes helped me get through it with my sanity (mostly).
As as I was reading this book, I mentioned to my reading friend in one of our near-daily text conversations about books that the book was SO GOOD, but that I didn’t think I could recommend it to her. Honestly, I’m not sure who in my own life I would recommend this book to, other than my fellow readers of the #1001Books list and people that want to try Roberto Bolaño. If that’s you, I highly recommend this book, especially in audiobook format.